Ode to Toilet

In response to a reader’s request for more explicit information regarding my allusive reference to the toilet in Odessa, I offer the following bit of education on one of the grittier aspects of Peace Corps service.  Those of you with toileting issues might want to refrain from reading…. 

One of the first social mores to be dumped during Peace Corps service is the general prohibition – assuming one is not working as a plumber, parenting a toddler, or sliding down the backside of 70 – against discussing bowel movements in excruciating, aurally augmented detail in public.  What is quickly discovered during the initial weeks of training is that when input changes, output follows suit. When diet changes, colons have been known to protest. Ergo, the physical condition of one’s toilet grows in importance as one spends increasingly more time hanging out in there.

I have been incredibly lucky in my site placements: all three have been furnished with indoor toilets complete with 24 hour running water. Not so for many of my compatriots, who have to time their flushes to coincide with the daily water schedule – if they are fortunate enough to have an indoor bathroom – or become adept at the “poop and scoop” method, shall we say, if they are using one of the village’s anachronistic outdoor veceu’s which typically (inexplicably) lack any sort of seat.  But even when they do have seats, problems abound. Take, for example, a recent (anonymous) posting in the “Moldovan Moments” section of our Peace Corps weekly newsletter:

“Even though my host family has a really nice porcelain toilet in their outhouse, I don’t like to sit on it. No particular reason why, I’ve just always been a hover-er. With that in mind, one really cold morning in January I went outside to take care of business but my aim was a little off.  I didn’t completely miss the hole but the poop pile got stuck on the side of the toilet….and then it froze. There was no water in the outhouse so I took the toilet brush outside, used it like a shovel to scoop up some snow and then put the snow on the turd until it softened enough for me to push it off into the hole.”

Probably not the fare you’re used to finding in your casual perusal of commercial media, but life is a bit off kilter in the Peace Corps.  Different voyeuristic interests assert themselves and begin to take precedence over politics, sports, and entertainment.  This piece elicited actual fan mail.

Not only have I struck gold with my site placements, I have actually been able to completely avoid pooping in a hole since I set foot in Moldova.  (This is a stroke of luck so far out of statistical range that I should be calling up the Guinness Book of World Records to establish my claim.)  Through a series of fortuitous circumstances indoor flushing toilets have been available at all the places I’ve worked, visited, or stayed.

To further clarify how atypical my experience has been vis-à-vis bathroom conditions here in Moldova, I must divulge that I have an on-going bet with another volunteer who – when she learned about my track record – vociferously argued that I COULD NOT go for 27 months of service without  popping a squat in a veceu.  In fact, she was willing to spring for dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Monterrey (we both are from California) if I returned in 2014 having never entered into intimate relations with an outhouse.  I stood her bet.

This commitment to completing my service without having to subject myself to some of the more distasteful aspects of living in a developing country has become increasingly steadfast over time.  It has precluded me visiting some of my very dearest friends here – sorry, you don’t have an indoor toilet and I’m going to win this bet!  It has narrowed my options for outdoor activities: afraid I’ll have to pass on camping in Orhei Veche next weekend – no bathrooms! And entertainment: sure the festival looks fun, but there won’t be indoor plumbing…

Well, Odessa did me in, folks.  Never did I think that the third biggest city in Ukraine – granted, a Peace Corps country, but still a travel destination –would be the first place that I suffered the indignity of lowering my drawers in fetid squalor.

[Fair warning: turn back now if you are possessed of a weak stomach or delicate sensibilities!]

Throughout the whole nighttime bus ride I gamely declined from debarking to wander off into the pitch dark night to relieve myself in one of the fields abutting the border stations where we waited for hours to have our passports examined and processed.  I am one of those regular souls whose elimination occurs precisely within a two hour window every morning as the dawn breaks.  I figured I could make it to Odessa with no problem.  Besides, while I didn’t think peeing on the grass really counted the same as pooping in a hole, I wasn’t going to take any chances with my winning streak.

What I didn’t count on was our bus driver detouring into a stadium-sized parking lot and killing the engine just as the sun was surfacing over the horizon.  What????   My bowels had been rumbling into life, excited by the first peeking rays.  But this was not our destination (was it?)  Where were the buildings, the restaurants, the shops, the markets- the BATHROOMS????

Oh my.  This was not good.  My fellow (Moldovan) passengers were blithely gathering tissues in apparent preparation for relieving themselves in whatever accommodations they could find in this vast desert landscaped in asphalt.  Apparently we were going to be here awhile.  Past my two hour window. My bowels immediately froze, attentive.  We Peace Corps volunteers exchange meaningful looks: dare we dream of an actual building? Or do you think it’s a veceu? Perhaps with no seat?

Not only was there no seat, there was no roof or doors, either.  A cement slab with oval cutouts above an open sewer with waist high walls.  People had been missing the holes for years.  Urine and feces literally lapped in waves.  Cardboard boxes containing weeks’ – if not months’ – worth of used tissue paper overflowed, creating paper mache floats that bobbed at your feet.  Used tampons? Check? Dirty diapers? Check.  Condoms?  I don’t know, I didn’t get close enough to verify.

I should’ve peed on the grass.

My bowels were so unsettled by this experience that they refused to void until I arrived back at site more than 24 hours later.  Unfortunately, I could not hold my bladder, however.  One of my friends was so traumatized that she boarded the bus, pale as death, trembling, cheeks moistened with  tears, to lie with eyes closed for a full 10 minutes before she could speak again.  (She is possessed of delicate sensibilities.)

Lesson learned.

What we attempt most to avoid is going to hunt us down and assail us when we least expect it.

You can bet on it.

Juxtapositions & Dichotomy (will drive you crazy)

The following pictures were taken on the 10 minute walk down a dirt road linking the center of town with the Neoumanist center. These scenes are all within 100 yards of each other. The best pictorial case I’ve seen made for homeowner associations,,, much as I loathed them back home…

100_1961 100_1962 100_1963 100_1964 100_1966 100_1968 100_1970 100_1971 100_1972 100_1973 100_1974 100_1975 100_1976

I’d like you to meet Patience, the humble virtue

Fair warning: Not entirely unlike my others, but certainly to a greater degree, this blog is entirely self-involved and navel-focused.  If you generally read my postings while half asleep, this one will put you there in no time.  If you’re in a really good mood, you should probably put off reading it for another day.  If your bored already, it just might do you in.  There are no beautiful pictures or entertaining anecdotes to amuse you.  How’s that for putting off any potential readers?  But  of course, I’d appreciate the audience anyways….


You know how it is when someone (usually a parent or spouse or sibling) tells you something that you feel like you already know and you kind of nod your head and simper, trying to look attentive and appreciative, but inside you’re saying:

Got it covered. I’m capable!

Okay, come on now, we both know I’ve been alive for more than two decades, for pete’s sake!

I know this already. I know this already. I know this already.

Really?  Do you imagine I’m that stupid?

I grew the ef’’n turnips this bloody truck is sending to market, give me a break!

or some other such permutation of narcissistic arrogance?  Such is the case with most of us potential PCVs who scan the provided literature, nod our heads sagely, and then proceed to jump up and down with enthusiasm and glee before eagerly putting pen to the dotted line.  Of course there will be frustrations and the need to adapt and periods of ambiguity and challenge, but it is all part and parcel of the grand adventure and the mind-altering journey and the uplifting opportunity to be of service and the blessing of subsuming humbly to a greater good….of course I can handle it!  I am Ghandi and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer and Sargent Shriver all bundled up in one tidy little package, ready to be shipped overseas!

Yeah.  Let’s talk about that.

See, this the thing that I’ve come to believe about us Peace Corps Volunteers.  If you look real close, I bet you might find many of us (not all mind you, one can never generalize to that extent) to be hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, experience-greedy, over-achievers masquerading as retro-liberal, greater-good-minded, altruistic missionaries spreading peace and friendship. The Peace Corps is a relatively difficult organization to join, given the lack of motivational pay and impoverished living conditions that must be endured.  The big prize you get is the untarnished badge of courage. You immediately and effortlessly earn the gaping admiration of all of those back home who sing a chorus of wonder at your bravery and selflessness.  How can you do it, they ask? Leave friends and family and the comforts of home to strike out for the great (unwashed) unknown?  What a saintly soul you harbor in your humble breast!

And soon, you imagine, you will be in the position to gratify their approbation by sharing swashbuckling tales of humanitarian magnitude: how you single-handedly  assisted the overworked midwife delivering  a baby in the fly-specked hut; constructed stout sewers to port away disease-mongering  filth; funded innovative treatment plants to make the village water safe; plaited purses from gum wrappers to help domestic violence victims achieve economic independence; built schools out of mud and straw to educate the next generation and hospitals to treat the discarded and greenhouses to feed the hungry and windmills to power it all, and oh, by the way, taught English to would-be social entrepreneurs in your spare time, all the while knowing you were icing your resume and weaving a global network of potential partners and acquiring powerful contacts in embassies and international NGOs to assist your ultimate goal to travel the world and live in exotic locations on someone else’s dime.

Except when you can’t.  Because you haven’t done anything to merit even the smallest bragging rights that you assumed as your entitlement once you debarked the plane.

Ok, I probably sound cynical.  But you’d be surprised.  Or maybe you wouldn’t   Maybe it’s an unaccountable naivete that has heretofore blinded me to the self-aggrandizing ends that serve to motivate some of the best work done in this world.  Poftim.

Something inside me has always impelled me to achieve, at times without a larger purpose or vision, but always to prove that whatever I undertook I could accomplish well.  I don’t know if it was the oldest child syndrome, or a sublimated competitive drive that didn’t get expressed through sports, or just a preference for directed action as an occluding buffer against the persistent whispering of samsara, but I’ve prided myself on my ability to perform above average in most professional and educational circumstances, thereby cementing my sense of self-worth and bolstering other’s opinion of me. (Of course, I didn’t go to Harvard or work for Apple, so my means of testing myself were pretty confined.)  I didn’t expect to be seven months into this endeavor with not a damn thing to show for the time but a remedial ability to speak a provincial language and a healthy case of psoriasis. Here I am, an unremarkable thumbnail (in the immortal words of Sue!) on the Peace Corps’ global screen of achievements. There are many, many other (most, much younger, I might add) PCVs who are succeeding in ways that I’m not even close to touching at this point.  My resume looks pretty bland and the address book painfully thin.

At the end of December, my partner left her position with the organization where I was placed in August after my Pre-Service Training.  Because Peace Corps assigns volunteers to a partnership rather than an organization and because, for a variety of reasons, there was no alternate partner for me there, I had to leave, tail between my legs, along with her.   The time preceding this ignominious, inconclusive end had been fraught with frustration and inaction. Our hands were tied on so many levels that we faced the impending train wreck like helpless maidens forsaken on the rails by a faceless agent of doom.  Fortunately, I had a two week vacation scheduled just about that time which provided a needed (and very pleasurable) measure of distraction, but since the second week of January I have been sitting in my room, trying not to dwell on my ineffectiveness by watching movies, reading books, snacking more than I should, and avoiding YouTube videos that could be teaching me how to knit.  (This last activity just seemed to be too sad, launching me into full-fledged spinsterhood WAY before my time.)

The experienced PCV will tell you that winter is a period of hibernation in Moldova: from the beginning of December through mid-January, there are a steady series of holidays that mandate a great deal of eating, drinking, and dancing, but after that most Moldovans hunker down to wait out the cold and the snow. In contrast to your typical Americans, who greet the New Year with to-do lists, grandiose resolutions, new cookbooks and expensive gym memberships, Moldovans seem to accept Mother Nature’s cyclical guidelines and slow down their activity levels during these frigid months.  Hence, it is not the best time of year to go foraging for a new partner.

I have received much good advice from those who have been here a year or two longer than me.  “Slow down, take it easy, appreciate this time of reflection.  Let go of the compulsion to be so American, the need to do, do, do.  Learn to follow gracefully the seasons’ lead and relinquish frenetic energy to these meditative months of withdrawal and inactivity.  And this is very good advice.  (Remember that head nodding and simpering?)  Advice that I imagine will be much easier to apply once I have another year under my belt and can reflect back on a spring, summer, and fall replete with a small successes, challenges overcome, and the fruits of my labors gleaming, plump and robust, in the storehouse of memory.

I find that I am not productively managing the acres of empty hours stretching before me.  While part of the incentive for joining the Peace Corps, believe it or not, was the thought of those empty acres that could be cultivated with writing and journaling and blogging and researching publishing avenues for the next generation Eat, Pray Love that I intended to compose during my time here, the tillage period has proved to be never ending and the seeds of experience are slipping through my fingers like sand.  I can’t grasp onto anything tangible to prove my mettle or worth, have produced nothing remarkable or noteworthy, haven’t had an iota of lasting impact, and the friends that I made have scattered in the aftermath of the events that blasted me from my site.

Perhaps it is more that I feel guilty.  As if, like the proverbial grasshopper versus the industrious ant, I have somehow neglected to provide for my own nourishment during these lean times.  I am restless and unsettled and have a perennial churning in my gut.  The future is uncertain and the recent past a wobbly structure not capable of supporting my current anxieties.  Like those fraught filled moments when you teeter at the apex of the roller coaster before heading down, I realize that I put myself on this ride but at this very moment I can’t quite recall why I imagined it would be fun.

This experience is altering me in ways I didn’t consider but probably need.  While I am not one to steer my ship by someone else’s stars, I realize now that, after I have plotted my course of action, I typically seek the comfort of external validation before proceeding .   This time, for the first time – at 51 years old, no less – I find myself on my own and surprisingly lost at sea.  I joined the Peace Corps, received my standing ovation, and now the lights have dimmed and the audience departed and am left in an echoing auditorium to contemplate how minor role my role in this drama could turn out to be.

No one else, not even another PCV, can comprehend my extant situation clearly or advise me on the best course of action or whether action is even possible or necessary. All further lines and plot developments are shrouded in mystery, author unknown as of now.  We come into service by ourselves (excluding the married couples) and will need to make decisions and move forward – or sideways or backwards or downwards or not at all – on our own.  So this characteristic of mine to think about a problem from every angle, but then perform back up analysis through another’s viewpoint in order to most thoroughly anticipate and manage possible  repercussions and outcomes, is completely thwarted here. Plus, I am not able to assuage my need for confirmation of my decisions by others who can be counted on for support and hoorahs.

Seemingly out of the blue, though (but perhaps not,) in response to an incoherent whine about my befuddled mindscape, my brilliant pen pal offered me a bit of sage commentary (completely circumventing my argument above that no one can offer me relevant advice):

Maybe you can’t know ahead of time about any of it. Maybe the best thing can’t be figured out by you with what you know. Sometimes something brilliant comes along that we couldn’t have figured out ourselves, and in fact we might have shunned as a lesser choice. And it turns out that the universe, or whoever, knows more than we do. Are you able to let go, relax, and just see what happens? 

I find myself mired in circumstances that I don’t have much control over, but maybe that’s the point: these are circumstances I don’t have much control over.  I am not able to consume myself with planning and strategizing and plotting and thinking and being brilliantly proactive in anticipating every nuanced outcome, then parading my analysis before my peers for applause and approbation.  At this point all I can pretty much do is throw my hands up in the air and yield to the organ-unfurling plunge.  Hopefully, the ride will turn out to be as amazingly mind-blowing as I once was so certain it would be.  Meanwhile, my mental furniture is being forcibly rearranged and refurbished by concepts that I would never imagined entertaining previously.  Like age and experience doesn’t always equate to an advantage in any given circumstance.  Or that logic and reason can effectively inoculate one against unexpected fall outs.  That the virtue that develops from patience is not one of one of spiritual calmness enveloping frustrations in a soothing blankness and calming worries to sleep, but the protective, hide-like callous born of constant friction, irritation, and sometimes pain that allows you to endure without seeking surcease from the torture.

So the one blessed thing for me right now, I’ve suddenly realized, is that I have created this megaphone to scream through when I need to, this outlet for stultified activity, this navel-gazing blog – my somewhat ironic tribute to the third goal of Peace Corps: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans by complaining.  And through that process I have received so much unexpected support, encouragement, empathy, and love from people back home that I feel like I have a virtual bridge I can walk across online anytime to seek out a hug when needed.  I am so blessed.  Not by what I’ve done, but by what I’ve received.

And maybe the Peace Corps experience, in the end, will prove to be an exercise in developing and formulating better Americans, both those that go and those who witness and encourage them – despite all the setbacks and disappointments and early terminations and unrealized expectations and unattained goals – from home.  Maybe it’s good to know and to experience the fact that we – dare I call us a land of hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, materially-driven, over achievers masquerading as the world’s superhero? – cannot and therefore should not attempt to make over other countries and peoples in our own rather distorted image.  Maybe this journey is about humility after all, about NOT succeeding, about being at the mercy of forces outside of our control and still doing one’s humble best to influence them for the better and smile during the process.  Perhaps I need to take a back seat and just shut up and enjoy the ride.

I certainly hope that I am providing some measure of insight into this journey to others whose bravery and courage is not set on a global stage, but is attained through less visible but no less remarkable endeavors closer to home.  My own process of self-discovery is revealing how thoroughly and completely American I am, through and through. And that is neither a wholly positive nor irretrievably negative attribute.  But it does color what I choose to attend to, the depth and volume of that attention, and what effect it may have on its object. With half my life already lived I realize that there are aspects of myself that I have never met – unexamined expectations, assumptions, limitations, and aspirations that might be better served with a dose of patience.  Teach me, Moldova.  I think I’m finally ready to let you drive.


PS: And to all of you prospective volunteers out there reading this blog in hopes of getting an edge on what the future holds, let me just reiterate what you’ve already been told and probably passed over blithely a hundred times already (and will not absorb any better this time either, because you just can’t.) You won’t know what it’s like until you do it and you can’t prepare for it ahead of time because no one can describe the exact circumstances that are even now conspiring to thwart your thralldom to Peace Corps and undermine your determination to be THE best volunteer ever who never complains or sees anything but the positive and describes her 27 months of service as the nexus of all that she aspired to be and learn in this world during the press interview for her surprise, runaway bestseller.  But do it anyway.  And bookmark this posting, because after you have confronted and endured your own thousand foot drop I’d love to hear how scary/mind-altering/exhilarating/humbling/educational the ride proved to be.  Let’s compare notes and celebrate surviving the Peace Corps roller coaster!


Life in Wintertime

The hill leading up. Before they slide back down…

So it’s winter here.  Not the fake winter we pretend to have in Southern California, decorating our mall windows with plastic snowflakes and our Escalades with reindeer antlers  while maybe throwing on a windbreaker to travel from car into supermarket – but real winter, where treacherous roads winding through countryside have never seen a snowplow and cars that skid off the road have no tow trucks to help them dig out.  Men laboriously shovel dirt from the beds of slowly moving trucks in a stalwart attempt to provide some measure of traction on hills and curves.  Car wheels skid uselessly at the top of the hill on my street before slowly sliding down to the bottom again.  Other cars sit idle and useless under mounds of snow in the hillier neighborhoods of Hîncești; their owners will not be able to use them until spring when the killer black ice fades away.

Yesterday some of the employees of the center where I work made a picnic lunch and we piled into the all-wheel drive van with the consultant visiting from Germany to show him the only “tourist” attractions Moldova has: two of some fifty Orthodox monasteries that sit in relative isolation throughout the country.  My partner had checked the weather forecast which indicated cloudy skies but no snow, so I donned four layers of clothing and the steely determination that being California born and raised was not going to prevent me from avoiding excursions for a third of the time I am living in Moldova.

Me, outfitted, sweating

Now of course, those of you who know that I have “been going through the change” for the past two years or so must appreciate what wearing four layers of clothing means for me.  It means that I can only apply the top three layers minutes before leaving the apartment or I will die from heat prostration and suffocation.  It means time indoors is spent weighing the benefits of disrobing with the hassle of having to put everything back on again later.  It means long car rides invariably result in me sweating profusely within my tights/long underwear/ body shirt/tee shirt/sweatshirt/wool scarf/down parka outfit while my feet and fingers slowly go numb and the portion of my face that is exposed feels as if needles are dancing across it.  There is no happy medium here.  The only place I am reasonably comfortable is at home.  Consequently, I am getting more and more loathe to leave. This is not a good sign.

So I made myself go on this jaunt to Căpriana and Hincu.  And once in the van and on the Imageroad, I actually enjoyed watching the scenery go by.  All the trees are bearing heavy loads of snow; their gnarled and twisted branches seemed to reach out in supplication as I passed by behind my frosted pane of glass.  The sky was a muted mix of shadowy pastels overlayed with a sheen of silver.  Most of the dwellings we past were trailing ribbons of smoke from their chimneys, attesting to the warmth of families and friends huddled inside.  My companions were in high spirits, telling jokes and commiserating over children and husbands and housework and life in the way that any group of women the world over is wont to do.Image

In between the two monasteries, we pulled over to the side of the road and ate our picnic in the van, a healthy masa of baked chicken, sarmales, meat patties on bread, and the unbiquitous sliced tomatoes.  Someone had brought a small thermos of chai that was still piping hot; I don’t know if it was better to hold or sip, but both proved satisfying.  And of course bags of sweet treats were passed around at the end.

This is the “summer” chapel. They have a winter one also.

As in so many developing countries, the monasteries proved to be much grander and better constructed than the surrounding villages.  It was actually uncomfortably warm inside some of the buildings (me packed inside all my layers with a menopausal thermostat notwithstanding.) There were icons, blessed bottles of water, candles, incense, and small bottles of perfume labeled „Jerusalem” for sale, on which my companions did not stint.  One of the ladies even made me a gift of a small portrait of three saints. All purchases were laboriously recorded by pen in triplicate; this took approximately five to ten minutes per person for each sale while the German and I stood around examining the intricacies of the painted walls.  Of course, days are mere blips in the annals of these monasteries.  And we didn’t see any other visitors in either place.  What do they have but time?

No expense spared
The horses get jackets
The dogs don’t. This one followed me until I climbed back in the van because I shared a bone left over from lunch.

As I write today, snow is falling relentlessly outside.  A fellow volunteer who had spent the weekend with me – traveling for four and half hours in order to sit in her pajamas watching movies and trolling the internet with someone else rather than spending yet another day in her bedroom alone in her isolated village – departed the warmth of my apartment at 11am, only to get to Chișinău an hour and half later and discover that the buses aren’t running up to her village: too much snow and ice.   She called me, dejected, facing a 20 minute walk down the side of a highway back to Peace Corps office to try to find a place to stay tonight.  And maybe tomorrow.  The forecast says snow all the way to Wednesday.

No handicap ramps or easy access in Moldova

Across and just down the street to the right, there is always a group of people waiting to catch a ride out of town.  They huddle in small groups like articulated penguins, snow piling like heaps of scattered salt on their heads, shoulder, shoes.  Sometimes they wait for an hour or more.  I stand at my window and watch them, asking myself why the city doesn’t think to construct a simple shelter?  Even a roof on four posts that would keep the snow and sleet from steadily burying people where they stand?  How do Molodovans keep such stoic patience, never expecting more for themselves?  I toy with the idea of going out and asking them: don’t you think you deserve better than this?  rallying the troops, inciting a movement, marching on the raoin council with frost laden posters, clutching candle stubs to warm our hands.

But then the thought of donning all those layers is just too overwhelming and I return to my desk to compose my useless thoughts about their plight.  Honestly, Peace Corps is tough in ways you just never imagine.

Swimming with Potemkin


Today, in the course of a conversation between a German consultant visiting my center and my partner, the notion of a “Potemkin village” was used to illustrate those aspects of Moldova that can be so misleading for foreigners who try to understand how life works here.  My partner had never heard this term, so we related the story (which experts now claim to be myth) of Potemkin erecting only the facades of settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787; Potemkin wanted her to experience the area as more densely populated, flourishing and productive than it actually was. Oddly enough, my partner seemed to have trouble understanding the point of the story, almost as if it was perfectly natural for a government official to perform this sort of manipulative trick to impress a powerful benefactor.  Such is life in Moldova.

Earlier this week, I received a request to relate the more mundane details of my weekly routine: what do I actually do here from day to day, what is my environment like, who do I encounter and where do I go?  And as I thought about responding to this query, it occurred to me that my days are full of these Potemkin villages – the contrast between what is available to me as a Peace Corps volunteer versus what ordinary Moldovans can access; the wide range of locales that I visit and the varied people that I meet in my work and through the Peace Corps.  Nothing is really as it seems, and all it takes is a scratch to the gleaming, brightly hued plastic surface to see the iron and rust lurking beneath.

Five Days in the Life of a Potemkin villager

Day 1:

I awake.  Lindsey, a fellow volunteer now living in another village, has spent the night for convenience sake. She and I do a language lesson together on Wednesday mornings from 9-11 with our tutor, using the opportunity to converse with each other and receive immediate feedback on grammar and pronunciation.  Peace Corps will pay for any volunteer to receive up to 12 hours per month of professional tutoring in Romanian or Russian, depending on the language needed for his or her assignment. I take full advantage of this and it is definitely one important way that Peace Corps invests in local economies throughout the country.

My tutor's apartment building behind the billboard.
My tutor’s apartment building behind the billboard.

After my language lesson, I literally cross the street from my tutor’s third story apartment to my center.  My partner, the center driver and I depart immediately for the Chișinău airport to pick up a consultant flying in from Frankfort, Germany.  We negotiate the snow and ice and arrive at the airport prior to his plane landing, so we wander through the shops and restaurants in the small but modern airport that I barely remember seeing when I arrived in a stupor at the end of a 36 hour journey last June.  There are many officials going in and out of various doors in full fur coats and leather boots, looking important and fully occupied.  There is large Christmas tree decked in splendid regalia on the second

Chisinau airport - exterior
Chisinau airport – exterior

floor and the aroma of brewing coffee and yeasty breads fills the air.  Puffy children in pastel hats, mittens, snow boots, and parkas waddle about like mini-marshmallows.  (No one wants to peel off layers of buttoned, zipped, velcroed and snapped clothing for such a short amount of time.  They are so adorable I want to eat them.)

Chisinau airport – interior

I use the notepad on my iPad to write the German consultant’s name in big letters.  My partner and the driver are entranced by the invisible mechanics of such a thing, fascinated that my finger can bring forth words on a screen.  They peer at the letters closely and giggle. 

Once having obtained our German, we depart the airport and are soon winding through a maze of twisted, pot-holed streets in the outskirts of the city.  I realize that this is not the direction home: “Unde mergem?”  Where we are going, I ask.  “Scuzați, Yvette!  Mergem să cautem brad am vazut pe internet ieri.” We’re going to find a Christmas tree my partner saw on the internet yesterday.  Not at a store, mind you. Somewhere in this nest of crumbling apartment buildings someone has offered a tree for sale.  So the German and I are left in the van to become buddies while my partner and the driver begin a lengthy search on foot for the tree.  I try to explain to him that this is normal in Moldova – one maximizes trips into the city by performing a multitude of tasks when there.  He nods sagely and relates that much the same is true in India, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, places he has visited for work on a multitude of occasions.  I am oddly excited to have Moldova lumped in with such exotic locales.

My partner and the driver eventually emerge with a green stick that, upon closer inspection, proves to be an artificial Christmas tree.  It possesses four or five bent, sparsely-leafed branches and has definitely weathered its share of holidays.  Sigh.  Even developing countries have fallen prey to Christmas plastic.

Day 2:

I spend the day attempting to negotiate the niceties for our German guest.  He needs to change money, so we drive him to the nearest ATM (which is literally a block away, but no one walks in Moldova if the luxury of a “mașina” is accessible.)  It takes three attempts for him to understand how to operate the machine. Meanwhile, it has begun to snow.  He wants to stop every few steps as we head back to the car to finish telling me a story – his wife has admonished him not to walk and talk simultaneously when it’s icy.  I am freezing and I can see my partner sitting in the front seat of the van wondering what in the heck we’re doing.

After retrieving money from this thoroughly modern convenience (accessible in Russian, English, Romanian, and French,) we drive to the local indoor piața to buy food for the dinner we are hosting at the center to celebrate its year anniversary and search for the cinnamon that the German wants for his breakfast toast. There we encounter entire sides of beef, legs of lamb, livers, tongues, chickens with feet attached, and fish complete with heads, scales and fins.  Mounds of homemade cheese (called “brinza”) balance atop rickety wooden tables next to recycled plastic bags replete with unshelled walnuts, dried fruit, wrapped candy (manufactured in Moldova), and two liter water bottles refilled with milk.  Bare, bloody hands transfer meat from table to scale to bag.  Nothing is sanitized, inspected, or refrigerated, but – since it’s probably only 30 degrees – I tell myself I will not be concerned.  Vagabond dogs wend through the table legs nose to concrete sniffing for scraps.  Men are smoking in clusters around the meat and fish; their ashes pepper the swirling currents of air.  At least its winter so there are no flies.  Needless to say, there is no cinnamon.

Day 3:

My center
My center

During a feedback meeting with the German in the afternoon, my partner begins to cry.  The beautiful façade of our center with its brightly colored murals, ergonomically-correct high chairs, handicap friendly bathroom, frothy curtains, and cartoon stencils is suddenly peeled back to reveal the seething cauldron of problems that sources her daily tears.  After listening for an hour or two as I attempt to translate and summarize the various administrative and funding dysfunctions besetting the center, the German proposes the very same list of solutions that I so eagerly proffered mere months ago.  He is met with the very same stubborn rebuttals and intractable arguments that were shoved back to me.

I explain to him  that this Moldova; we are both liberally-educated, professionally-networked, culturally

Lyrical ode (in Romanian) to the hope and joy that children bring
Lyrical ode (in Romanian) to the hope and joy that children bring

privileged, westernized people using our analytical skills and inherent activism to tackle issues that have arisen in a foreign environment, that were born of a much different experience and informed by perspectives we don’t share and will most likely never understand.  I see his shoulder sag subtly as he begins twisting his hands in his lap.  God, I know the frustration he is feeling, mind scurrying from scenario to scenario, trying to find the invisible thread leading out of this tangled web back to sanity.  I want so badly for him to find it where I’ve failed. Sadly, at this point I don’t hold out much hope.

In the evening I am invited to a masa at the lovely home of the second Angela – friend of the first Angela whose house I went to two weeks ago.  I am amazed at the architecture: one enters into an intimate, cozy kitchen/dining/living room combination – a miniaturized version of the “great rooms” now so popular in American homes.  The center is stabilized by the highly polished trunk of a tree that was culled from their property.  The cabinets are all fashioned of a reddish, blond wood with glazed glass inlays and ornate handles that could have come from Restoration Hardware.  Other smaller, sturdy trunks support the plastered ceilings of her and her husband’s bedroom, which they share with their 7 year old daughter until the time when their son, 18, is ready to move out and free the second bedroom for her.  The bathroom sink is a shallow, smoky glass bowl, the shower fashioned from rough stones also plucked from their property.  Angela is pleased that I shower praise on their creation that they designed and built themselves; “Most Moldovans just don’t get it,” she tells me, wryly.

The meal is hearty, the wine plentiful, and the conversation lively.  I don’t get home and tucked into bed until well after midnight.

Day 4:

I arise at 5:30am, having lain awake for an hour already dreading the task ahead.  I have to dress and ready my baggage for an overnight stay in Chișinău.  I am attending the International Women’s Club of Moldova’s annual Winter Bazaar in order to sell Christmas cards, candles, and velvet bags fashioned by my center’s staff to supplement the meager cash they have set aside for the children’s holiday party.  While I enjoy being in the capital once I’m there, the journey is fairly long and tedious.  It is still dark and very cold when I leave the warmth of the apartment at 6:50am.  Negotiating the steep, ice slicked asphalt of the driveway leading to the street, my feet slip out from beneath me and I land forcefully on my butt, driving the wind from my lungs.

At 6:55 I board the waiting rutiera that is scheduled to depart at 7:00 as I have planned to meet another PCV at 8:00am.  I am the sole passenger.  The driver and I converse about the difficulties of learning languages; he commiserates with me about the mishmash tongue that is loosely termed ‘moldovanești’ – an amalgam of Romanian, Russian, and Ukraine words that is variously spoken in the majority of the small villages.  Peace Corps teaches us the proper version of Romanian, but this does not often match up with what we encounter at our sites. The further you travel from Chișinău, the greater the deviation from textbook style.

Many weeks ago, I discovered a well-organized (by Moldovan standards) website, autogara.md, which provides a comprehensive list of the departure and arrival times for buses traveling throughout the country and into Romania and Ukraine.  I was so pleased – a schedule!  I didn’t have to wander aimlessly up and down the street waiting for the right bus to appear. Instead, I can tear myself from the comfort of the apartment mere minutes prior to departure.  The rutiera I have boarded, however, does not end up pulling out until 7:25, five minutes later than the scheduled time for the next departure of the day; only two more passengers have boarded in the interim.  I know that I won’t make it by 8:00, but we Americans are smart by now: we pad in extra time to all appointments to account for the vagaries of Moldovan public transportation.


The Winter Bazaar is held at Moldexpo, a thoroughly modern exposition complex on the outskirts of the city.  There are over a hundred booths, mostly embassies – Chinese, Turkish, Polish, Italian, German, English, American – along with the United Nations, various Moldovan NGOs, and the Peace Corps.  Experienced participants know to mob the American Embassy booth early, buying up all the cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup, gallon bottles of Log Cabin syrup, one pound jars of Skippy Omega+ Creamy Peanut Butter and containers of Kraft Country BBQ Sauce before the front doors have even opened for business.  Ahhh, American manufactured food – don’t we all just crave it, in spite of ourselves.

This day proves to be one of those disorienting experiences wherein I feel as if Scotty has beamed me up to the Starship America: ten or fifteen PCVs of various ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities are milling about inside the small PCV booth and spilling out into the pathway, transitioning smoothly from Romanian to

Last year's Christmas Bazaar in MoldExpo
Last year’s Christmas Bazaar in MoldExpo

Russian to English while sharing plastic plates of Ethiopan and Italian cuisine, laughing at each other’s jokes, discussing the merits of Northface versus Marmot parkas, and comparing itineraries for upcoming vacations.

In the evening, my fellow PCV, Elsa, and I prepare a luscious dinner of oven-baked chicken basted with Kraft BBQ sauce, accompanied by the left-over Spanish rice she served for Moldovan guests a couple of nights before, and a side of fresh (!!!!) Swiss Chard grown by another PCV as part of his greenhouse project.  While we are cooking, her Moldovan landlady stops by to pick up the payment for the electricity.  She spends a good 20 minutes parsing out the details of the bill, seemingly striving for a rare transparency in a largely opaque cash economy.  The Peace Corps allots hugely generous, mandatory, non-negotiable amounts for utilities and rent within our monthly stipends.  Moldovans who are selected as host families or who are fortunate enough to land a PCV tenant most times do their very best to provide a pleasing experience, anxious to retain this steady boon to their monthly incomes.

Day 5:

I arise at 6:40am from the bed Elsa generously shared with me, trying not to wake her.  She has slept restlessly for most of the night, waiting for two other PCVs whom she has told can sleep on her floor to arrive.  Like most PCVs from small villages let loose in Chișinău on a weekend night, they want to maximize their time and don’t show up until the wee hours.  That is the bane of being assigned to a project in the big city.  The coveted ability to access a variety of perceived luxuries like bars, restaurants, bookstores, malls, operas, ballets, concerts, and well-stocked grocery stores is balanced with the need to build and maintain boundaries of privacy and quiet time.  Having an apartment in Chișinău means constantly fielding requests from fellow PCVs to crash for the night when they trek into the city from far-flung locales.  When you have a generous, nurturing soul like Elsa’s, the ability to say “no” is one that must be practiced over and over, despite the discomfort it brings.

Dawn is breaking as I spend a good twenty minutes enveloping myself in tights, body shirt, long underwear, sturdy canvas hiking pants, woolen sweater, scarf, hat, mittens under gloves, and water proof UGGs to brave the outdoors.  I heave my pack onto my back and decide to take the stairs, as I doubt that me in all my layers plus back pack will fit inside the minute steel box that masquerades as an elevator.  Plus, I just don’t trust the damn things.

I trudge through the peripheries of the city’s bustling center, dodging through smoking pedestrians; packs of skeletal, shivering dogs; broken manhole covers that plunge into murky abysses; empty plastic bags of various hues skittering in the wind; careening automobiles with horns that blare at the briefest obstacle; and bundled bunicas selling potatos, beets and cabbage at the crumbling pavement’s edge. Neon signs for gambling dens fight for air space with satellite dishes, trolleybus cables, and billboards advertising European label clothing and airline tickets to Turkey.  The women, as always, are minutely coordinated, stylish bags match boots which match scarves which match parka trim which matches lipstick, blush, and eye shadow.  I look like a misplaced hobo; I can see their eyes twitching disapprovingly from my shoes to my bulky jacket to the lumpish backpack that causes me to walk in a slightly hunched manner.  I couldn’t care less.

Peace Corps Office
Peace Corps Office

I arrive at Peace Corps office, sign in, check the log for a stray package I might have overlooked, then trudge up three flights of stairs to the PCV lounge.  By the time I get there I am sweating like it’s mid-July and must frantically discard my top two layers of clothing as quickly as possible.  Various volunteers wander in and out, draping themselves about the second-hand furniture, dropping their belongings on the floor, mixing cups of instant coffee with plastic spoons retrieved from the trash, complaining of hangovers and the monumental journeys back to site.  It reminds me of nothing so much as a college dorm room; disheveled youths far from home, parked behind iMacs blaring iTune playlists, exclaiming in delight when ripped open boxes from home spill out Cheetos, Kraft Mac N Cheese, deodorant, and warm winter clothing.  People emerge from the shower with wet hair, wrapped in towels and proceed to dress with their backs oh-so modestly turned.  Talk of projects, families back home, countdown until COS (Close of Service,) and the previous night’s escapades drift through the musty air.  Me and two other PCVs, Sue and Tori, retreat to a back office to concentrate on plans for today’s effort to plug Turul Moldovei 2013 (more on this later.)

We emerge hours later into biting wind and mud spattered snow, facing a 35 minute walk to the Palațul de Republica where a formal event honoring volunteerism is set to occur.  It takes us only moments to decide to hail a cab.  Tori sticks her head in the window and begins negotiating a price.  Sue and I stand alert at the back doors, hands on door handles, ready to dive in.  Cars line up, honking impatiently, behind us.  Though the price is 5 lei more than we originally decided to pay, we pile in hurriedly, willing to cede bargaining efforts for comfort.  We inch our way between belching buses and shiny Mercedes only to catapult to 50 miles an hour through the open stretches of icy roadway, suffering whiplash on the sudden turns. Pedestrians scatter before us.  Balalaikas blare tinnily from the radio.

We disembark before an imposing, pillared facade that has – no kidding – unfurled an actual red carpet atop the slushy, dirt-laced snow.  Depositing purses, keys, and mobile phones on a table, we pass through a security detector which beeps loudly and blinks red for every person, leaving me to ponder the efficacy of its abilities.    We enter a magnificent three-story hall, encrusted with chandeliers, burbling fountains, and galactic gold balls hanging from the ceiling like a retro-modernistic installation conceived in 1954.  We check our coats with an actual coat check girl who hands us each a carved wooden tag embossed with a glittering number.  We are ushered up to the second tier and encouraged to take our seats in the cavernous auditorium in preparation for the festivities to come; ah, but we are smarter than that now.  We know that the performance will stretch into the evening hours, with no intermission or refreshments available.  We surreptiously slink back down the grand staircase and proceed to effeciently accomplish our mission, nabbing the people we wish to meet as they walk through the detectors (beeping, flashing) in order to introduce ourselves and our future event. (Again, future blog post.)  Within 30 minutes, we are hailing another cab back to Peace Corps.

Malldova - exterior
Malldova (I’m not joking)

A couple of hours later I am sitting in a swank coffee shop in a mall that could have been built in any California city, waiting to meet with an Irish woman who runs a large orphanage in Hîncești.  Suzanne is an amazing force of nature, who emits energy and cheer throughout any space she enters.  I find myself craving her company in these dour days of winter.  She has generously offered to let us hitch a ride back in the van that transports the medical personnel working at the orphanage back to their homes in Chișinău every evening.  Thank the sweet lord for this, as a blizzard is bearing down and the thought of negotiating the street corner wait and the various bus changes back to site is just overwhelming me at the moment.  I have never appreciated personal vehicles – as environmentally depleting as I know them to be – as I have since winter has descended in full force upon Moldova.

Malldova - interior
Malldova – interior

I spend a few minutes in delightful conversation with Suzanne’s father, who is urbane and thoughtful, remarking to me about the bitter irony of this „Malldova” – an architectural showcase of shops which 95% of Moldovans cannot afford to patronize.  (Just like South Coast Plaza, I think.)  The coffee here is the same price it is in the States.  Men finger their iPhones at the table adjacent to me, while brusquely barking at each other in a language I cannot identify. Heavily made up young women lounge next to them in real furs, feet encased in six inch stilettos.  (How do they walk through the ice in those things? I think.)

The ride home is spent in silent, repetitive prayer to a Father God I don’t believe in – please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova, please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova. The driver is good, but the road is icy and sleet is blanketing the windshield with frost.  There are no street lights or municipal trucks to salt the roads.  We slide perceptibly on the curves, hydroplaning three or four times. When we finally turn onto the road leading into Hîncești, I feel the muscles in my neck and back I didn’t realize were clenched subtly relax.

It has been dark for 3 hours by 7:00pm when I shed all my layers, wash my weary face, and sink gratefully into

Winter window view looking out from my bedroom
Winter window view looking out from my bedroom

the easy chair bathed in the warm light of a table lamp in my room.  Tomorrow, language lessons, 9:00am.  I have not studied a word of Romanian (though granted I have been speaking it at various times throughout the past five days.)  I  am too tired to care.  I am too tired to check email, Facebook, or the days news.  I am too tired to eat.  The book I am readying on my iPad sits heavily in my lap.  Outside, snow is swirling and the wind is whistling through the twisted limbs of the tree just outside my window.  An occasional truck thunders by.

Using my Google voice number, I call my husband.  He is just waking up, contemplating a choice of cafes for breakfast and a leisurely perusal of the New York Times.  Life is moving on at the same pace, in the same grooves, 6000 miles away.  It is not snowing there.  I hear Zoe bark once, sharply, in the background and picture the person she is warning walking past outside the window. His voice is so clear I could swear he was in the next room.  I laugh at one of his jokes and my eyes suddenly fill with tears.

Happiness masking melancholy; plastic coating rust; glitter over darkness; facades hiding emptiness – it all rolls through me in a wave that crests, breaks, and then recedes again.  I’m learning to negotiate the currents and swim with the tide.  And actually, its really not that bad.

I took my love and I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills 
‘Till the landslide brought me down 
Hum along now, you know the tune.....
Hum along now, you know the tune…..

Oh, mirror in the sky 
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail thru the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Mmm Mmm…


Mirroring Moldova

The crumbling, hazardous steps leading to a public square

Does Moldova make you sadder?  Does just being here cause one’s happiness index to plummet beyond rescue?  Bruce Hood would answer in the affirmative.  I am listening to his book The Self Illusion as I walk to and from work each day and it is giving me a somewhat undesirable perspective on how I may be chipping away at what I had previously thought to be my natural state of joy.

In line with Hume’s “bundle theory,” Hood states that decades of neurological research lends proof to the theory that the “me” inside my head is an ongoing,  illusory narrative concocted by the brain to establish a necessary focal point for the reception and organization of stimuli into coherent patterns for reciprocal behavior.  He describes an elegant metaphor of the “self” as the external mirroring of one’s cumulative inner experience of the world and the other “selves” we encounter, giving an oddly somatic testimony to the notion that ‘we are all one.’  To the degree that we have an impact on the people who are in direct relationship with us, or who benefit from our work, or buy our products, or listen to our songs, or live in our buildings, or abide by our laws, or respond to our ads, or slip on our tossed banana peel – etc., etc., etc., – then we are affecting and thereby shaping the formulation of other “selves” in our world, contributing to the reflection that we receive from them that thereby shapes us in turn.  Whew.  (Of course, reading the book will give you a much deeper appreciation of his argument.)

“The line between out there and in here is not as sharply defined as we think.”                                                Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss

 So what does this have to do with me and Moldova?  Well, here’s the thing.  A Dutch professor named Ruut Veenhoven , along with his colleagues at the World Database of Happiness (WDH,) has been collecting data for years on what makes us happy, what does not, and – interestingly – which nations are the happiest.  Not surprisingly, Moldova consistently scores near the very bottom of the index.  Lower, even, then some African countries that definitely have a lot more reasons to bitch.

The effects of decades of harsh winters
The effects of decades of harsh winters

In the Geography of Bliss, a book about his travels through some of the happiest countries in the WDH and one – Moldova – that decidedly is not, Weiner proffers a theory that Moldovans are more unhappy because they are in Europe’s backyard and inevitably compare themselves with countries like France, Italy, and Germany, where so many of their working adults flee to make money.  However, there is also the on-going legacy of the Soviet system, which has warped the very fabric of the nation.  And there is also the physicality of Moldova – the crumbling building, the frost eroded concrete, the rusting pipes, the ubiquitous trash.  There are very few public places that please the eye or gratify one’s craving to find order and harmony in one’s surroundings.

A typical apartment building
A typical apartment building

The chapter on Moldova was quite revelatory in its illustrative vignettes which capture those elusive experiences I have found so difficult to articulate.  Here, for example, is a brief exchange between Weiner and a hotel clerk which highlights the impenetrable, obstinate ennui that seems to have a stranglehold on the population:

I return to the hotel. My Semi-Luxe room is hot, very hot.   I call down to the front desk.

“Where is the air-conditioning?”

“Oh, no sir, there is no air-conditioning in the Semi-Luxe room. Only in the Luxe room.”

“Well, can I upgrade to a Luxe room?”

“No sir, that is not possible.”

“Can I get a fan?”

“No sir, that is not possible. But you are free to bring your own.”

Graffiti transcends borders
Graffiti transcends borders

Weiner even visits a group of Peace Corps volunteers, for whom he feels nothing but pity.  After all, as he astutely notes, “We can’t very well call it the US Bliss Corps, but that’s what it is: an attempt to remake the world in our own happy image.”  And indeed, this is one of the hardest things for me to accommodate to here. My own happiness sparkles a bit before fizzling out in the face of such pervasive doom and gloom.  It is difficult to find something – anything – that Moldovans are happy about and you can’t really blame them.  When you live in a country corrupted by nepotism, cronyism, and graft; where medical and legal degrees are purchased outright and passing grades are conferred on children of influential parents even when they don’t attend school; where prescriptions are purchased by those who have enough money to bid for a medical appointment in the first place; where only a portion of the international aid flowing in is doled out by the few who have established themselves as trustworthy merely because they speak English; when you live in a country that is a country in name only, but does not appear to generate a cohesive culture that binds people into a group identity that supersedes narrow-minded, short-term pursuits in favor of broad-based, mutually-beneficial reciprocity, you lose. Period.

A public bench

For about the last month, it has become increasingly apparent to my partner that our center is in serious danger of losing its operational revenue after December 31. For reasons I won’t get into here, we have not been successful at finding new sources of funding.  My partner has been coming into my office the past few days and sitting in the chair opposite me, her eyes dull and ringed in dark circles, shoulders sagging, hands nervously fidgeting about her face and hair.

“Ce facem, Yvette?”  What do we do?

I don’t know.  I don’t know. “Nu știu.”

I am not the lucky talisman I was at the beginning.  Bit by bit, I feel myself succumbing to the demoralizing ennui.  I don’t know how to battle the forces that so relentlessly pound people down here. Of course, as an American and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I keep taking this failure personally.  Why can’t I figure it out? Where is the magic formula that will make this tangled web of lunacy unravel into a logical thread of hope? Why can’t my relentless American optimism overcome this amorphous miasma of despair?  I hear myself telling her that she pursue her dream of moving to the United States – escape this country, find a better life for herself and her husband and kids.

And then I stop myself, horrified – what am I saying?  My country’s better than your country? How un-PC am I?

Pedestrians waiting to cross the street
Pedestrians waiting to cross the street

I think I’m ceding to the notion that the line between the outside and the inside is not as sharply defined as we like to think.  Although the metaphor of the stalwart individual shaking her fist at the world and turning the tides of fate may be heroic, it does not make room for the millions of people who want to live ordinary, peaceful, predictable, and – yes – mundane lives.  Not everyone yearns to be Joan of Ark.

Many western nations naively believe that by “liberating” people and then handing them a toolkit for democracy, we guarantee them future success and happiness. But it’s not that simple.  Democracy is predicated on the basis of people trusting in one another, on a shared culture that instills faith in process and creates points of entry into those processes for everyone. Moldovans, 20 years after leaving the Soviet Union, do not have that.  At one point in their conversation, Ruut Veenhoven observes to Eric Weiner, “The quality of society is more important than your place in that society.” The truth of those words rings clearer to me each and every day that I live here in Moldova.

Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere - what a grim reminder...
Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere – what a grim reminder…

I am trying, as best as possible, in all my interactions, to mirror back the innate optimism and belief in democratic process that being a product of American culture has instilled in me.  And I have met so many, many Moldovans who want to believe, who yearn for change.  But it certainly doesn’t help that many of the best of them are sucked out of the country by the promise of an easier life elsewhere. The changes that need to occur are not going to happen in one person’s lifetime.  They must be willing to fight for a legacy that will only be realized by their children, or their children’s children, or their grandchildren’s children.

And how many of us Americans have shown the willingness to do that nowadays?

Meanwhile, happiness comes in small doses, in conversations around the table with Nina, in watching the women work so lovingly with the kids at my center, in sharing a meal with new friends, in solo walks around the lake behind my house.  And, I must confess, in getting together with other PCVs, whose vibrant American souls continue to recharge my battery and create new energetic input to my “self.”

The point of hope...
The point of hope…

I appreciate my fellow citizens, body and soul, like never before.

Bless you, America and all you Peace Corps Volunteers here in Moldova…be the change you wish to see in the world!

*All photographs are courtesy of fellow PCV Britt Hill – no relation, though I would be happy to claim her.  She has a much better eye for detail than I do so I shamelessly stole them from her FB site.

Thanks Britt!!!


Winter is coming to Moldova.  I can feel the change in the air – even though the sun breaks through the clouds most days to shine bright and strong, it never manages to warm the air sufficiently to forget what month we’re in.   While it is within October’s purview to don a breezy cloak of warmth on occasion, November is too busy kissing up to December’s gray foreboding locks; it brooks no tolerance for wistful memories of summer.

I would embrace wholeheartedly this opportunity to experience – for the first time in my five decade plus life – this inevitable cycling of the seasons, the turning of life from bounty to harvest to dormancy to regeneration – all of the blessed profundity of it- if it wasn’t for the damn dogs: Canis lupus familiaris. Those ubiquitous roadies trolling behind the human bandwagon, an animal most thoroughly doomed to trace an endless feedback loop that grants it no reprieve from the vagarious impulses of a far more intelligent, yet somehow (usually) less sympathetic species.

Vagabonds, they’re called here.  Strains of German Sheppard, mixed with a bow-legged, furrier, terrier type: they’re everywhere in Moldova. (Though one occasionally glimpses an odd-man-out; the other day I ran across a perfect Chinese pug, shivering in the cold, reminiscent of the little prince my grandmother cherished for some 15 years.) A few appear to be well-fed; I have come to realize that many Moldovans “own” dogs which they permit to roam freely about the village, opening the gate for them in the morning then granting them safe harbor when they return in the evening with the setting sun.  But most are not so lucky.

Fending for themselves at the outskirts of attention, they regularly ravage the few trash bins placed around town, strewing wrappers, bottles, plastic, paper, and other non-edible waste about the streets and making an already degraded environment appear even more disheveled and unkempt. You see them sitting alert in front of a child eating an apple curbside, waiting for the core that might be carelessly tossed their way; or following the kerchiefed bunica hauling a load of produce from the piața, sure that an onion skin or leaf of cabbage will stray from the bag; or trailing the busy man chatting on his cell phone while munching a placinta, lapping up the brinza crumbles falling from his mouth.

They are alert, always, attuned to the environment in a way that Zoe – my dog at home – has never had need to be. I watch them wait at the edge of the highway, tail tucked between their legs, watching, knowing what’s dangerous, shying back at just the split second necessary  to avoid being hit. No one (but me) it seems notices; they are invisible, skirting the edges, immensely disposable. No one pets them, feeds them, names them, buckles a collar about their bony necks.  Their coats are matted, their eyes wary.  As the cold deepens, setting in its claws, they coalesce into packs, finding warmth in numbers.  And soon enough the guns will come; many will be shot.  One is safer in the middle of the herd, by the far. Dogs are not dumb.

I must keep reminding myself that their genes betray them, though: these are animals doomed to the periphery, dim notions of warmth and camaraderie suffusing their bones, with scarce few – if any – opportunities to realize them.  I do not venture to connect with them; though I carry bones always, when dinner has provided them, I throw them several yards and walk quickly away, not wanting to attract the pack.

One can know a country by the way it treats its dogs….

My “date” with Mihai?

Vegetable display…what a nifty centerpiece

I may have relayed that Nina invited Andrei and Mihai to my birthday masa last Wednesday night (Andrei and Mihai are the two gentleman that figured largely in my blog post about attending a celebration in Boghocieni though I didn’t know their names at the time.  MIhai is the man who guided me through the hitching process, Andrei the man who emerged in his bathrobe…)  So a couple of hours into the party, and several bottles of wine later, either Andrei or Mihai brings up the Agricultural Expo taking place this weekend at the Moldexpo in Chișinău.  They want me and the other three volunteers present – Matt, Lindsey and Patty Harlan – to come with them.  At least this is what I understood at the time. Both Lindsey and Matt refuse the invitation, citing other plans, and it is my initial impulse to do likewise.  After all, I truly am a city mouse and have no penetrating interest in farm implements, combines, and animal husbandry techniques. However, I pause and consider the fact that this would present a real opportunity for integration and show me a side of Moldova that I don’t have easy access to, living in a raoin center like I do.  And, admittedly, the wine has painted the world friendly and fun and I think “what the heck, I’ll go!” I then talk Patty into joining us, though this involves her rearranging a language lesson and pulling herself out of the heavily tread routine she’s dug for herself in Hîncești. (I think she may be the only M27 who remained at site for a record two months after PST.  She ventured into Chisinau a mere week ago on an excursion with fellow Moldovan teachers on a hired bus to the opera – which doesn’t really count as far as I’m concerned.)

Come Friday, however, Patty has a chance to view an apartment for rent that morning and has decided that this is more important to her overall happiness than accompanying me to Agrofest.  So now it’s me and the two Moldovan men.  While this causes a stir of apprehension within me, I console myself with the knowledge that these are two good friends of Nina and it would be impossible for them to perpetrate some indiscretion upon my person without her finding out and making mincemeat of them (Nina is traveling to her village for the weekend – like usual – and cannot  join us.)  So I  hold off on canceling out – I don’t have their contact info and probably couldn’t make myself understood over the phone anyway – and wait for the knock upon the door.  Which, in typical Moldovan fashion, comes precisely 51 minutes after the agreed upon time of 9:00am.


 Surprisingly, when I answer the door, there is Mihai, alone, in suit and tie, smelling faintly of cologne, no Andrei in sight. Well, perhaps he is waiting out in the car? Again, will I ever learn?  No car, no Andrei, and off Mihai and I trek to the bus headed into Chișinău.  At least it’s a bus this time and we’re not standing on the side of the road trying to negotiate a ride with a truck driver, I think.  Which should have been my first inkling that perhaps this little excursion held a bit more significance than I – with my casual American attitude regarding cross-gender friendships – might be initially aware.  As Mihai held my arm crossing the street – a feat I accomplish with no assistance several times a day – and guided me onto to the bus midst the teeming throng – again, a negotiation I have successfully managed without fear or trouble many, many times in Moldova – something began tickling the underside of my brain, like the feeling you get when you might have left the iron on at home or forgot to turn off a burner on the stove.   Then, I realize that he has paid the driver for my ticket as we have boarded after the moment when the driver walks down the aisle collecting the money.  I try to repay him the money for my fare, but he refuses to take it.  Then, after we are seated, he turns and (tenderly) brushes away hair that had caught in my eyelash, and suddenly an alarm bell begins to ring, loud, clear and insistent, in my head.  OH MY GOD – this is what PC warned us about!!! Any excursion comprised of a man and a woman – especially if you are beyond the naivety of youth – constitutes a date in Moldova, no matter how innocently you might have accepted said invitation.  Oh shit, shit, shit!!!  I’m on a f***ing date!  

 When Mihai reaches across the back of my shoulder to open up the curtain so I can see the view, I descend into a brief panic.  Thankfully, his arm retreats back to his side and we resume a halting conversation about the beauty of the countryside (autumn – so far – presents Moldova in her very best light), the whereabouts of his apartment, the times I have previously traveled to Chișinău, the number and gender of his children and grandchildren, etc.  I am still holding out hope that perhaps we are meeting Andrei at the expo and I begin to relax a bit.  Silence ensues and I zone out watch the passing rust and mauve-tinged vineyards and brilliant blue sky outside my window.   However, once we arrive at the Gara de Sud and he again grabs my arm (even though I have purposefully paced myself to walk two feet behind him,) and again pays the driver for my ticket (despite me having my fare in my hand) and proceeds to kick a young woman out of her seat so I can sit down (causing me great consternation and embarrassment) and then smiles at me every time I look up and see him watching me, I realize that I need to make the status of this little divertissement as clear as I possibly can.

Nina’s farm is in Bassarabeasca, where this honey was made.

Once we arrive at Moldexpo and it is clear that Andrei is not, indeed, joining us and the conversation lands on the distance marriage that Nina and her husband have contrived (him living full time on the farm in their village and her residing in the city because of her work with Avon) I realize this is the perfect opportunity for a brief segue into my personal circumstances.  I remind Mihai about my own marital status, the fact that my husband does not like to travel like me, that he has an important, well-paying job in America, and that I am here because of a desire to live and work in a different county for a time, but that I will be returning after two years.  (All information that I have shared before, but I figured that revisiting it couldn’t hurt.)  This was the best I could manage, given my limited range of Romanian and the intricate complexities required to convey conflicting emotions and delayed dreams and the deep insights into mortality that mid-life birthdays seem to convey for us first-worlders.  Suffice it to say that he was quiet for awhile after this, but I may be flattering myself unduly.  I have no idea if I embarrassed him by implying that his intentions were anything other than friendship, if he was confused by why I needed to insert previously established biographical data during an excursion to Agrofest, or if he was busily re-organizing our activities for the day to accommodate my (hopefully) clear lack of intention to pursue a more intimate angle.  I could have been wrong about the whole thing, given my absence from the universe of courtship for almost a quarter century now.  Oh well. Better safe than sorry.

John Deere makes it to Moldova

 By the time we enter the gates to the expo, small talk has resumed, the sun is peeking out from glorious, white-feathered clouds and a brisk breeze periodically floats women’s brightly colored scarves about their necks and hair.  The day is beautiful and it is interesting to see the range of equipment on display, from micro-tractors built in Japan designed for the private farmer to gigantic, towering combines from Russia looming far above our heads that, Mihai tells me, are only affordable – maybe – for ‘associations’ – to group purchase in Moldova. (These machines-on-steroids continually elicit disgust from him as flagrant reminders of Russia’s ‘abandonment’ of the Moldovan economy – he is one of a certain segment of Moldovans that thinks returning to the fold of the Soviet Union to be its only hope for a brighter future.)

Mihai exhibits a preternatural ability to pick foreigners out from the crowd and everytime he sees one he drags me over and excitedly announces that I am an American that speaks English.  This provokes some puzzled looks (he, after all, is not speaking English) until I open my mouth and say, “Hello, where are you from?” and we establish that, indeed, Mihai correctly assessed that they were from Germany or Holland or England or Bulgaria and – as never fails to astound me – speak almost perfect English.  (Americans remain stubbornly parochial in our language limitations largely because we can.) He even announces this to Moldovans, finding a handful that also speak perfect English which results in me exchanging phone numbers with the daughter of the Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs (a great PC connection, if I can figure out how to use it) and a woman who conducts tours throughout Moldova in her own private vehicle (an exciting expansion of my travel capabilities.)  I meet several who have gone to school in the US in such varied states as North Carolina, Virginia, and New Mexico.  I share with them that last year at this time I was traveling through those very states. We exclaim mutual surprise at the relative smallest of the world.

 Mihai, meanwhile, has been gathering every piece of literature offered by the vendors. He has a bag filled with twin, sometimes even quadruple, copies of every brochure, catalog, pamphlet, magazine, flyer, newsletter, and booklet that was offered.  And every time he picks one up, he looks slyly around and carefully slips it into the bag as if he is in a covert operation collecting evidence for some sort of political intrigue.  I think that he is naively unaware that these articles are provided without charge and assumes he is getting away with something in obtaining this wealth of information for free. I convey to him, as politely as possible, several times, that I really have no use for this literature but he continues to collect it, stating that we will give my portion to Nina’s husband for wintertime reading on the farm.  By the time we reach the end of the exhibition I swear the bag must weigh twenty pounds. (I hope Nina’s husband will appreciate this effort, but it seems like a yawn-inducing compilation to me…)

Gear for whiskey-making, always an important addition to an agricultural fair…

 After the exhibitors begin to dismantle their wares, Mihai has me call his sister for him (he doesn’t own a mobile phone, remember, an antediluvian idiosyncrasy even in Moldova.)   I hand the phone to him and then wonder why I can’t understand anything he says until I realize he’s speaking Russian – ah, yes, the Russian connection – and he tells me afterwards that we are now going to his sister’s in Buiucani, a fancier section of Chișinău that is home, amongst other institutions, to the University of Moldova and the American Embassy.  Great – now I’m being taken to meet the family? crosses my mind briefly but I let go the thought; the day has been fun and his manners impeccable and there has been nothing to concern me since I made my awkward little speech.

Yes, that’s the bottle of wine.

 Julia’s apartment is spacious and modern, though a little disordered from renovations she appears to be committing on the wrought iron that laces the outside of her windows. Our visit is made instantly convivial by a large bottle of homemade wine and it is from his sister that I learn of Mihai’s wife, Nina, who has been living in Israel for the past five years working as a nanny.  (This information surfaces in the midst of a comic ridicule of Israeli dependence on American aid and a somewhat skewed notion of Putsin’s character strength in refusing to provide money to spoiled nations.)  I am more than a little surprised that the existence of said wife has not been proffered in previous conversation, either by Mihai or my host sister, Nina.  Such biographical data seems integral to me to basic, introductory phases of communication.  This leaves me worried – just a bit – of perhaps not having misinterpreted Mihai’s intentions, after all. And my Nina is fully capable of aiding and abetting such deceptions.  She is one of a certain demographic of independent Moldovan women who appear to have a more casual, European view of marriage and conjugal relations, stating on more than a few occasions that I should remain open to entertaining the attentions of a “barbat” while I’m in Moldova.

Adorable chinchillas destined, sadly, for women’s coats

So when Julia forcing the unopened bottle of beer Mihai has brought with him back on us is coupled with his stated attention to accompany me home purportedly to divide the literature loot between us, and then I find the apartment still empty of Nina, I quickly pull out my phone and call Patty.  Like an angel, she appears after a mere half glass of beer has been consumed between us and all social discomfort – imaginary or actual – is resoundingly diverted by her presence. We sustain 30 minutes or so of trivial conversation, but it is only after I yawn repeatedly and repeat “obisita” (tired) several times that Mihai begins to gather his booklets and turn his attention to departure.  Observing traditional Moldovan etiquette, I accompany him to the door, where he pulls a final, fast one that confirms for me that my long-dormant instinct is still operating correctly.  In Moldova, it is common for women to kiss each other on either cheek when greeting or saying goodbye. For men, however, it is more customary to either take a woman’s hand and feign kissing it or, if one is particularly gallant, to actually place his lips lightly upon it.  Relatives and particularly close friends – i.e., Nina and Mihai, say – will allow a kiss on the cheek from the man to the woman.  When Mihai started toward my face, I flinched, and then was horrified when he kissed me smack on the lips and then giggled mischievously. I was so shocked I just stood there with my mouth agape before gathering my befuddled brain to shout “rau!” (bad!) at his departing back as his disappeared down the stairs.

Me, with pumpkin

Another lesson stumbled through about the nuances of Moldovan culture and the difficulties of communicating clearly without a better command of language. Perhaps it was just a teasing gesture on the part of a lonely man who welcomes female company of any sort in the prolonged absence of a wife (dear me, does that mean my husband is kissing neighbors?) but I will need to establish much firmer boundaries if I ever decide to accept such an invitation again.  These are the aspects of Peace Corps service that one just doesn’t anticipate. Really.

And the question is: why there, not here?

I hope I have been abundantly clear to all of you who have taken the time to leave a comment on one of my posts how much they are appreciated. Writing a blog is a little like standing up on stage (sitting at my desk) alone staring out into the blinding white lights that effectively erase the audience (the blinding white page on the monitor) and floating a monologue (pressing “publish”) that may or may not hit a resonant chord with my readers (comment/no comment.) Actually, I myself read many blogs that I think are wonderful but all too often I don’t take the time to comment as I’m not really sure I have anything pertinent to say. That’s bad etiquette on my part, given my first hand knowledge of what a boost it gives the writer to see that someone was moved enough to join the conversation.
Anyway, I received a comment on my last post – 9-5 – that posed a very incisive question, one that I’m pretty sure must have bounced through the minds of more than a few people who know me, but was never actually put to me in person: So why are you there providing volunteer services in a foreign land rather than here helping your own community/country/people? As the commenter truthfully pointed out, there are many poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served communities in the United States. And if all of us just focused on taking care of our own, perhaps there wouldn’t be the perceived need to fly halfway across the world to provide meaningful service to humanity?
This comment definitely made me sit back and go “hmmm.” Initially, I was impelled to react and, fingers poised above the keyboard, I sifted through the myriad arguments tumbling through my brain in an effort to decide which one to put first. But then I stopped. I realized that this was an important question that deserved thoughtful consideration, as (I confess) there have been more than a few times that I have asked myself the very same thing. So I’ve been mulling it over all day. And here’s where I’ve landed:
The Peace Corps’ mission has three simple goals:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Perhaps because of their simplicity and clarity, these goals have not changed in the 51 years since the Peace Corps inception. They wholly contain the very essence of a volunteer’s service and manage to embody – for me, at least – the reason why our government (and we taxpayers) see fit to continue funding this seemingly idealistic enterprise through administrations of both persuasions and times of dearth as well as plenty. There is a method to this madness. Let me explain.

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

Yes, I highlighted that word for a reason. If a country or a people are ever going to progress beyond the perilous escarpment of hand-to-mouth survival, they must be able to realize the benefits of critical thinking.

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”*

Surprise, surprise: critical thinking is not a universal entitlement conferred on all people at the moment of their birth. Rather, it is a hard won skill, usually gained through many years of exposure to a broad range of circumstances and/or – for a lucky and infinitesimally small percentage of the world’s population – through enlightened public education. Despite what for many appears to be a dismal state of the public school system in the USA, we still do promote the value of critical thinking. One learns that by experiencing the stark contrast with educational institutions elsewhere (a nod to you Patty.) As expensive as it is increasingly becoming, an American university education is still a world-class vehicle for learning to think critically if one applies oneself firmly to that goal. And it is precisely that kind of training that poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served populations throughout the world desperately need.

I subscribe to ten or twelve Peace Corps Volunteer blogs; I drop in on at least that many from time to time. One universal theme that runs in common through them all is a general surprise/disbelief/incomprehension/frustration/sadness about the “superstitions” that dictate so much of their host communities’ decisions, choices, and development. Couple those with a pervasive lack of comprehensive schooling, the afflictions of diasporas, warfare, governmental instability, and disease and you have a set of circumstances that Americans have not had to deal with since the aftermath of the Civil War.

I am not denying that desperate people exist in the USA. But I will proffer the argument that they have easier, more immediate access to meaningful, long-term assistance: there are a multitude of investigators, journalists, educators, attorneys, laboratories, foundations, government agencies, research institutions, think tanks and charities that have the resources to at least posit resolutions for problems within our borders. That is not the case in many other countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve because those aforementioned resolutions are most often the expression of critical thought, a skill which many of them sorely lack and determinedly seek.

The first goal speaks to our commitment to partner with interested countries (they have to ask for our assistance – we don’t invade or force ourselves upon them) in creating those resources which can help them help themselves. This is the quality that my commenter assumes that all peoples possess but which, in fact, they don’t. However impoverished various American communities, neighborhoods, or individuals might be, they have the distinctive, enviable quality of being American – a benefit whose worth we don’t usually recognize until it’s put into stark contrast with alternative nationalities. I left America in a state of perturbed disgust; I am beginning now to acknowledge and appreciate many aspects of its intrinsic value which I patently assumed to be a universal entitlement.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

This is a loaded one. Really. Because many of us PCVs here in Moldova appreciate, having recently taken up residence in a former Soviet state, the implications of providing an alternative viewpoint to the one which was sanctioned and forced down Moldovans throats for many a decade. It is – literally – a battle between east and west to win the hearts and minds of a psychologically distressed population which has been traded back and forth like a pawn in a global chess game for centuries.

Have you ever really pondered the image of America that is most constantly, loudly, persistently, pervasively portrayed overseas? For starters, most everyone in Moldova thinks Americans are fat, gluttonous, greedy, obnoxious, loud, rich, lazy, surgically-enhanced pigs. Because that is what our media messages convey through all their various platforms: movies, television, magazines, advertisements, YouTube, games, Facebook, news and entertainment sites. We are not blanketing the world with love. Rather than creating bonds of similitude and friendship, we typically seed notions of competition and self-consciousness, which usually serve to distance people both from each other and themselves. We are not the caped-crusaders we like to picture ourselves to be. Actually, unfortunately, we have a distinctly evil grimace from most angles.

On top of that, we currently represent approximately 4.6% of the world’s population while consuming almost 25% of its energy. AND we export the inculcation of insatiability – we have it all and so the rest of the world should have it too. Never mind that there is not enough stuff (energy) to satisfy 6 billion individual desires for more meat and plastic and timber and gas and electricity and coal and steel and gold and caviar and diamonds and platinum and ……we could – and do, mind you – go on and on. We have fostered the concept that the world’s resources are infinite, rather than finite. We have role modeled wastefulness and ingratitude and greed. We have not paused even once to consider the larger implications of the “American dream.”

We may be heroic at home but increasingly, and unfortunately, we have squandered that reputation abroad. Considered as a portion of the nation’s economy, or of its federal expenditures, the U.S. is actually among the smallest donors of international aid among the world’s developed countries. Yet we boast the largest military expenditures by far, we have a president who has ordered the assassination of American citizens living abroad and we have yet to officially acknowledge the ravages of global warming, which are having far more detrimental effects on third world countries than on us.

Do you see why we might need friendly, altruistic ambassadors doing good deeds in foreign lands?

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Interestingly, one does not relinquish the title, or responsibilities, of being a Peace Corps Volunteer once service overseas concludes. I will be known as an “RPCV” or a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer for the remainder of my life. And I will be expected to continue my service – to a greater or lesser degree, the choice is mine – by mindfully promoting a better understanding of the country of Moldova and its people through talking about my experiences to other Americans (watch out world – you might find me somewhat tedious at social gatherings after this!)
Joking aside, it is truly unfortunate that most Americans have little experience of cultures outside of our own. It is why terrorists are so successful in inducing fear and our own government is able to slowly chip away at our privacy and civil rights in response. It is why the preponderance of people (myself included) who learned I was going to Moldova had to Google it to find out where it was. The numbers tell the story: Of the 308 million-plus citizens in the United States, only 30% have passports. And most of those passports are not being used to gain access to third world communities for extended periods, I’m pretty darn sure.

Every single blog I’ve read from current and past volunteers who have served in such “scary” countries as Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Columbia, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua, Turkmenistan, and Uganda have all sung hallelujahs to the hospitality, generosity, warmth, and caring of the communities that hosted them. Our current interim Country Director, along with all serving PCVs, was just pulled out of Tunisia for safety and security reasons. Despite this, he said that his partners and agency staff were “regular people just like us” who abhorred the violence being perpetrated in their towns and neighborhoods. Just like every single American isn’t a gangster, not every single person born to the Muslim faith or a tyrannical government is a terrorist. We have to get beyond our incestuous self-righteousness and really see and feel in our bones that most people have the same wants, needs, desires, and emotions as us if we are all going to make it into the next century.

So there is one long-winded, but definitely pondered response to the question of why I have chosen to serve in the Peace Corps overseas at this point in my life.

And, as a sidebar, I do wish to point out that for 20 years – until I was forced out – I worked in the non-profit sector making substantially less (as my husband and father would tirelessly remind me) than I could have working in the corporate arena. I have done my part for some of the underserved people in my own community. Have you?

*A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction

Poftă bună

my surprising fantasy…

So I guess when I find myself lingering over an internet news story illustrated with a picture of a Big Mac, it’s time to start to talking about food.  I’ve managed to steer clear of the subject pretty handily for the last three months, other than giving sidebar compliments to my Stauceni host mom for her “healthy cooking.”  It was healthy, primarily, for being composed almost entirely (other than a tablespoon of oil here and there) from items plucked directly from the ground outside her kitchen door.   I ate soup (or ciorba, as they call it) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Cold, lukewarm, and sometimes hot.  This had nothing to do with the weather, but rather when she might have prepared it and how long it had been sitting in the beci since then.

Honey, I Shrunk the Plates

You’ve all heard of Super-sizing your meal, right? That’s what we do in America – take reasonably sized things and inflate them to gigantic proportions: cars, houses, airplanes, hamburgers, sodas, boobs, lips, waistlines.  Well in Moldova, they haven’t quite caught up yet.  Everything is micro-sized. Or maybe it’s actually normal-sized and I’m just myopic in registering things on this scale.  Honest to god, their plates are six inches across.  They look like saucers.  I thought they were saucers when I first arrived and I kept searching through the cupboards for the dinnerware.

Moldovan plate only slightly smaller than actual size

Small plates actually equate to small portions – who would’ve thunk?  Dietetic problems solved – bingo!  One starts to realize how much was being previously consumed after finishing the micro-sized portion and not yearning for more.  Now, this can be partially attributed to the relative blandness of the composite ingredients – there are not a lot of fat/carb combinations stimulating the production of insulin and keeping the engine of fork to mouth churning.  But I think, for me, the very act of having a smaller portion in front of me (and not being the one in control of the portions or distribution) has changed my experience of eating altogether.  Since I actually eat more slowly (the food is just not that exciting) there is time for my brain to register that my stomach is full and I can blithely refuse the second helping that Moldovans are seemingly obligated to offer (probably because their plates are so small.)

What’s Cooking

While Moldovan cuisine isn’t bad by any means, it isn’t built on a distinctive melding of complex flavors.  There doesn’t seem to be the potential for artistry or creativity that propel some other ethnic foods to world-renown status (the French and Italians pop immediately to mind.)  I know some of my fellow PCVs would argue this point, but to me one cook’s placintă tastes pretty much the same as the next person’s.  I like sarmale, but it’s comprised of basic ingredients –  meat of choice (usually pork,) rice, onions, tomatoes, broth, with some dill and bay leaves stewed on the stove for a couple of hours, then wrapped in grape leaves and steamed for an hour or so.  Tada.


Their cheese (brinza) is made, oftentimes, from sheep or goat milk and has a very distinctive, shall we say pungent, taste.  It doesn’t melt well. Butter is expensive and used sparingly – primarily as a spread (along with mayonnaise and ketchup – yuk!) on white bread.   Their herbal potpourri is limited (but maybe that’s because I can’t read all the Russian labels?) Meats – the ones cured from their farm-grown ducks, chickens, pigs and rabbits – are VER Y lean and spare.  (These aren’t animals that’ve enjoyed a pharmaceutically-enhanced, hormone stimulated, grain fed existence. A whole chicken here doesn’t contain near the amount of meat that’s in a two-piece lunch meal from El Pollo Loco.)  There is no brown/wild /jasmine rice, quinoa, barley, bulgur, faro, millet, or wheat berries to be had.  There is white rice, corn meal, and buckwheat, white flour and semolina pasta.  And plenty of grapes, pears, plums, potatoes, green beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, and cucumbers (tons and tons of cucumbers.)  No lettuce, or spinach, or bok choy, or radishes, or radicchio, or leeks, or broccoli, or Brussels sprouts, or fennel. Occasional mushroom of the standard white capped variety.

I guess what I’m trying to convey is that the cook’s palette is very circumscribed.  You eat locally here.  And you also eat they what they’ve eaten for the last two centuries.   There isn’t much imagination or variance that goes into the pot.  Mostly it’s some combination of vegetables in a broth or sauce with a bit of meat added (sometimes) as a flavor enhancer.  Some cooks rely on pasta and rice to fill up the saucer/plate (my first Nina shunned these staples, but my new Nina is a fan. I don’t eat with her much.)  Putting cabbage and potatoes in a pastry (placintă) is a national favorite.  So is wrapping rice/meat fillings in grape leaves (sarmale.)  Zeama or ciorba de pui (sour chicken soup) is eaten two to three times a week.  Cold, for breakfast.

Anyway.  I have found my lifelong gusto for all things culinary has abated here.  Food is fuel.  That’s about it.  Mostly, it bores me.  I do get a brief frisson when I know the kitchen is clear and I can go in and wield a knife on the cutting board, but the dearth of stimulating ingredients when I open up the refrigerator soon quells it.  How many ways can one slice and dice vegetables?  Without an oven or food processor or crock pot, I’m kind of running thin on ideas.

Poftă Bună

With all the aforementioned now said, I must emphasize that Moldovans – like most cultures – use food as a primary mechanism for displaying graciousness, appreciation, inclusion, and nurturance.  They want to feed you.  PST devotes an inordinate amount of hours to discussions about food.  Yes, they tell which  foods to avoid and instruct on boiling water and sanitizing cooking implements and warn about checking label dates.  But they also provide guidance on how to politely refuse a third helping (customary politeness dictates acceptance of the second one, but not all of us are polite.)  They suggest tactful means of explaining that one doesn’t need to ALL the food that has been prepared in order to convey one’s appreciation to the cook.

I think this treatment of food as a bounteous expression is most beautifully illustrated by the Moldovan phrase “poftă bună.”  The word loosely translates as „bon appetit,” however, in other idioms the word poftă can also mean to lust for or after.  (And ”poftim” is an interjection with a variety of useful applications, from ”here you go” to ”pardon me” or ”Wtf?” – my interpretation, not the dictionary’s.)

In America, we enjoy our food with the best of them.  But we don’t regularly wish anyone sitting down to a meal “eat with lust!” or “Go for the gusto!”  But Moldovans do.  If any Moldovan, from five to seventy, walks into a room where someone is eating they say “poftă bună.” When someone hands you a plate of food, he says “poftă bună.”  When a server delivers you a bag of potato chips – “poftă bună.”  When a newly arrived guest joins the dinner table, be prepared for the refrain.  It’s ingrained in them, just like “gesundheit” or “god bless you” after a sneeze is for others.


Anytime I bring a friend into the apartment, Nina immediately prompts me to offer them chai.  When I try to tell her it’s not necessary, the person either doesn’t like chai or has only swung by to pick something up, she conveys a grudging but reluctant understanding through a barely tempered glare of disapproval.  I am not acting graciously in her mind. Moldovans will offer you chai if you look in their front gate as you’re passing by.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m just not that into their cuisine.  Otherwise I might weigh 50 pounds more at the end of my service.  And that is definitely NOT on my Peace Corps agenda.